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WSU Basketball: Is the defense really this good?

As the Cougars head into Pac-12 play on Saturday against Washington, we continue to assess where this team stands by looking at the defensive end of the floor. (We covered the offense yesterday.)


Defense is always a funny subject to broach with Cougar fans, because it seems like nothing short of a return to the absolute defensive dominance WSU produced on that end of the floor in five of the six seasons under the Bennetts will satisfy some people. And I'm fairly convinced we'll probably never see that again, given that precious few teams are able to generate those kinds of results without superlative athletes.

Go ahead - look at the top 20 teams in adjusted defensive efficiency this year. The Cougs ranked 2, 7, 19, 7 and 6 in the last five Bennett seasons with a slew of (from a basketball recruiting standpoint) misfits and castoffs. It's nothing short of amazing, and a testament to the unique coaching abilities of Dick and Tony Bennett. If it was as easy to be that good as some of our fans make it sound -- JUST PLAY HARDER GUYS!!!!! -- it stands to reason you'd see more athletically challenged teams up there.

I think this obsession with what we used to have prevents a lot of fans from seeing what we do have. And so far this year, what we have a pretty darn good defense.

As I mentioned in the offensive preview, the Cougars' defense actually is far outpacing the offense. WSU adjusted defensive efficiency of 91.4 is ranked 46th nationally and good for fifth-best in the Pac-12. No, it's not elite, but so far, it's been pretty darn good. Only two teams have exceeded 1.0 points per possession against them -- Kansas and Gonzaga.

Now, I know at least one person will say, "AHA! See? It's just a function of weak opposition!" To which I would respond, A) It's an adjusted metric, so it takes strength of opponent into account already, and B) The 1.07 points per possession the Zags scored against WSU actually was the Bulldogs' third-lowest output of the season, and about what both Illinois and Kansas did to them. (Only Clemson has held Gonzaga under 1.0 this season.)

I will concede this, though. I'm always a little bit skeptical of the early season efficiency metrics from Ken. Not because there's anything wrong with what he does, but because context has to be considered. In theory, the "adjusted" portion of the efficiency ratings takes into account the ability of the opponents, but with the paucity of quality opponents to factor into the equation during non-conference play, the mid- to low-major performances tend to outweigh those. And I think sometimes there's a bit of an exponential thing that happens where the team is able to use its athletic superiority to not just hold down an opponent, but smother it in a way that it wouldn't be able to do to a similarly rated but more athletically gifted opponent. It seems to me that this can skew things a little bit.

That said, I really don't think it's being skewed enough to dismiss this early-season performance out of hand. About the only thing the Cougs' don't do well is take the ball away ... but Bennett teams didn't either. In fact, these guys have an eerie similarity, profile wise, to those Bennett teams. Check out how they compare to Tony's last team. (National ranking in parentheses; stats via -- support his work with a subscription!)

Adj. Def. eFG% TO% OR% FTR
2013 91.4 (46) 43.7 (43) 19.5 (233) 27.4 (36) 25.0 (15)
2009 87.6 (6) 44.6 (15) 17.3 (324) 25.3 (2) 33.7 (112)

No, they're not as good -- Tony's team put up those numbers after going through a Pac-10 that was the top rated conference by Pomeroy that year, and this team gives up waaaay more three-point attempts. But that's not the point. The point is that they're they're doing a lot of things right, and that wasn't something you could generally say a year ago.

I see a team that pressures the ball with some purpose in its man-to-man, crowding shooters and making them uncomfortable -- exactly what you want to see from a team whose guards are all between 6-3 and 6-6. And while I think opponents shooting under 40 percent on twos is at least partially due to the size disadvantage of the non-major opponents, I still think it's a great sign for a team that was pretty bad at that a year ago. They don't have great shot blockers inside, but Brock Motum and D.J. Shelton have both been active enough around the rim to bother opponents without fouling them. (Junior Longrus, however, is an excellent shot blocker.)

Additionally, the three-point defense -- seemingly always a bugaboo under Bone -- looks better than it did a year ago. Opponents are shooting it worse than they did last season (33.2 percent vs. 35.2 percent), something I think is a function to some degree of the Cougs' length on the perimeter. (Although, Mr. Pomeroy has some provocative thoughts about whether that's actually attributable to what WSU is doing. I'll have more thoughts on this at some later time.)

In all, these guys just seem to have fewer breakdowns than they did last season. And when teams miss shots, Motum, Shelton and Mike Ladd -- one of the best rebounding guards you'll find -- do an exceptional job of cleaning up the boards.

Will that continue against the Pac-12? There certainly is going to be some natural movement upwards in those peripherals, but I don't think these guys are giong to fall off a cliff ... with one caveat: If they suffer an injury that forces Bone to rely more heavily on his deeper bench guys, all bets are off.

Actually, there's one other caveat. I could see a scenario where Bone goes to that horrible zone for stretches in order to conserve energy for a team that really only goes seven deep. In that case ... well, he'll get what he deserves, and you all will get to scream about what things were like in the good ol' days again.